The Freedom Ride through western New South Wales towns in February 1965 drew attention to the racism in these towns. Aboriginal student Charles Perkins was, by the end of the journey, a national figure in the fight for Aboriginal rights.
Challenging The Colour Bar
One warm February night in 1965, a group of Sydney University students boarded a bus headed for regional New South Wales. But the so-called Freedom Ride was no holiday vacation. Their aim was to challenge the ingrained discrimination and racism that was a largely unacknowledged feature of country towns.
Experiencing racism firsthand struck Pat Healy like a physical blow. “It’s one thing to know intellectually that people are racist. It’s quite another thing to go out and confront it in its raw power,” she recalls.
To stand in front of a group of people who can seriously tell you that black kids should not be allowed to go into a swimming pool because if they ejaculate they might impregnate white girls. How did you answer something like that? It’s so mind-bogglingly ignorant and so mind-bogglingly racist.
On a warm February night in 1965, Healy was one of almost thirty students from Sydney University who boarded a bus headed for regional New South Wales (NSW). But the so-called Freedom Ride was no ordinary holiday vacation. Their aim was to challenge the ingrained discrimination and racism that was a largely unacknowledged feature of country towns.
Healy, like many of her fellow students, came from a radical background. Her family were Communist and she became involved in student politics through the Labour Club and Student Representative Council on campus.
This lead to her involvement in the infamous Commemoration Day civil rights demonstration outside the United States Consulate in May 1964, in support of the Civil Rights Bill then before Congress. The American civil rights movement was well known in Australia at the time because of sympathetic media coverage.
But the students were heavily criticised for their focus on racism abroad rather than at home. Healy was “very stung by the comments and criticisms from the Aboriginal community that here we were demonstrating for black rights in the US. [They questioned], what about black rights in Australia?”
Coinciding with the increased politicisation of the student movement, Indigenous Australians were exploring ways to publicise their plight. At Sydney University, Charles Perkins and Gary Williams became the first two Aboriginal students to attend the university in 1963 and they quickly made contact with local Indigenous activists.
Taking the criticism seriously, students formed the Sydney University Organising Committee for Action for Aboriginal Rights, who organised a concert and rally for National Aborigines Day in July 1964. Over 500 students turned up to hear speeches by Perkins, Williams, and others who advocated equal rights for Indigenous people.
Despite the event’s success, the impact was local in scale. A new organisation called Student Action For Aborigines (SAFA) was formed on campus but Perkins wanted to do something dramatic.
“The idea of The Freedom Ride was a bit like an osmosis process,” Healy says. “It came out of a whole lot of discussion with a whole lot of people talking about, well what do we do next? And there were some people who had actually been on The Freedom Ride in the United States – Bill Ford and a woman from The States.”
The US Freedom Rides had taken place in 1961 with the aim of de-segregating transport such as buses. SAFA adopted the idea but with a much broader meaning. Black and white students would travel together by bus to draw attention to all kinds of racial discrimination.
“We never called it The Freedom Ride,” says Healy. “We called it The SAFA Bus Trip because we didn’t want it Americanised. We didn’t want people to think that we were just copying the American example.”
Students were not as concerned about transportation because it was not segregated. So the focus turned to places of leisure in country towns, such as pools, pictures theatres and RSL clubs, which were divided along racial lines.
They were also keen to get a better understanding of the actual living conditions of Aboriginal people in regional NSW. It was agreed that as well as protest, the students would conduct a survey to elicit more detailed information about racial discrimination, living conditions, education and health.
There was a very wide range of people involved,” Healy says. “From Communist Party members and atheists right through to very conservative members of Christian groups at university. And the debate really centered around what would we do when we were on this Freedom Ride or this bus ride, not whether we’d have it or not.
SAFA raised money, recruited participants, and planned an itinerary. One of the key organisers was Jim Spigelman, later a Chief Justice of New South Wales, but then a 19-year old student in Arts Law. He was indefatigable in seeking out information about conditions in the country towns to be visited.
Their protests drew angry responses from some of the white people in country towns, leading one to force the students’ bus off the road outside Walgett. Students were also both verbally and physically abused.
Student Action for Aborigines only demonstrated when clear cases of racist behaviour were displayed but Healy believes those examples were easily discovered.
In Walgett, for instance, the Returned Services League Club (RSL) simply banned Aboriginal people from being members. That was basically unacceptable. There was no reason for it. There was no logical reason why black people, Aboriginal people, shouldn’t have been members.
A line of city students protested in response, standing outside the RSL club on a hot day carrying banners that said ‘Good Enough For Tobruk, Why Not Walgett RSL?’, ‘Bullets Do Not Discriminate’, and so on.
Healy also highlights “the picture theatre that literally had a fence across it. Black people had to sit on one side and whites on the other. So we had plenty of examples of out and out racism that had no logical reason for it.”
Perhaps the most well known protest of the trip, however, was Moree. The students undertook their survey and found extensive evidence of racial discrimination but decided their focus should be the artesian baths and its adjacent swimming pool.
There was heated debate when the Moree Council passed resolutions in 1955 prohibiting Indigenous people from using the baths. They were a huge tourist attraction and the Council was determined they would remain so by excluding Aboriginals. The swimming pool was to be kept for whites only, except during school hours when Indigenous children were allowed in. Miraculously, at 3.30pm, they suddenly became too unhygienic to stay and had to leave.
The students decided to protest, first outside the council chambers, then by taking Aboriginal children to the pool and insisting they are allowed in. Finally, they held a public meeting in the evening to debate the issues.
As the students stood at the turnstile of Moree’s swimming baths, demanding that black children be allowed in, they were spat at, assaulted and menaced by a crowd.
Eventually, the Council and pool management reversed the ban and a group of Aboriginal kids from the local reserve were allowed to swim in the pool. The manager said it was simply a matter of cleanliness. If he could inspect the eight children to confirm their cleanliness, they could enter.
A photographer then took the iconic image of Perkins, surrounded by beaming kids, which immortalised the Freedom Ride in public consciousness around Australia.
But the protesters’ initial success was short-lived. After the students moved on to Lismore that night, they heard the Council had taken back the offer. “Everyone agreed that we would go back,” says Healy. “There was unanimity on that. We felt that to keep faith with the Aboriginal people of Moree there was no question, we had to go back. We knew we would only be back for a short while, but we had to go back.”
For more than three hours, students tried again to get Aboriginal children admitted to the swimming pool, but to no avail. Students would take a swimmer to the front entrance, only to have their arms pinned behind their backs and led away.
In the end, the students were forced to retreat. Covered with rotten fruit and eggs, the bus was escorted out of town by the police. The driver resigned, but the Freedom Ride continued with a new driver.
The urban media focused largely on such conflict as a sign that NSW was little different from the American South. But in the public debate that followed, city dwellers became aware of racial discrimination, some soul-searching took place in the country towns, racial segregation was challenged, and in some cases ended, and alternative ideas of inclusion, equality, and full citizenship rights were discussed at length.
The students’ unwavering commitment was fuelled by the responses they received to the survey. “I think what we were surprised about was the awfulness of the circumstances of life for Aboriginal people in country towns,” Healy says. “[The] conditions in which black people in country NSW were living at that stage.”
She continues, “the other thing that was also surprising and came out of both the survey and peaceful protest was the extraordinary level of racism amongst the white population. And the extraordinary ignorance on which that racism was based.”
The SAFA Bus Trip was not without criticism, however. Many argued that they had simply stirred up trouble and then left the people in the towns to cope as best they could. A further criticism was that students merely focused on superficial places of entertainment such as picture theatres, rather than attempt to improve basic issues of health and living conditions.
“I think the people who thought that we had stirred up trouble that wasn’t there previously, were all white,” Healy responds. “The blacks knew that there was trouble and it was there all the time for them.”
We did go into towns and then walk away again but we never pretended we were going to do anything other than that. We went there to try and find out what was going on, and to publicise what was going on. We actually did that very successfully. We made white people in urban NSW confront the reality that black people in country towns lived with constantly.
The so-called Freedom Ride put local civil rights on the front pages of newspapers as the Ride had done in the United States, according to Healy. “For that alone, it was a valuable thing for us to do because as long as something remains hidden, people are not going to deal with it. Once it comes out on the front pages of the newspaper and confronts them over their morning coffee and on their television screens, it’s much harder to ignore.”
On their return to Sydney, students followed through by taking their research to the state authorities, contributing to inquiries and the campaign for the 1967 referendum that would grant Aboriginal people equal rights as citizens.
“One of the most significant of the long term effects was, however, the emergence, for the first time in our history, of an Aborigine in a clear leadership role,” Spigelman, then Chief Justice of New South Wales, said at the State Funeral of Perkins in 2000. “There was no doubt at the time that Charlie Perkins was the leader of, and the spokesman for, the entire group of white students. In this, as in so much else, he was a pioneer for his people and a role model of considerable significance.”
Meanwhile, the philosophy of non-violent direct action inherited from Martin Luther King for the Freedom Ride was replaced with more confrontational politics, drawn from the Black Power and anti-war movements, as two examples.
“When you passionately believe in something, you do things,” Healy concludes. “You do them because you think that they might make a difference. You never quite know if they will or not. But you hope they will.”
“So you go ahead and do all sorts of things. You demonstrate, you do surveys, you write things [and] you give money. When, years later, you realise that what you did actually made a big difference, it’s a very humbling experience. Because you realise it is a just ordinary person being prepared to act on their beliefs that actually makes a difference.”
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- 1965 Australian Freedom Ride, Australian Civil Rights Movement, Jakeb Lovejoy, Esri Australia, Education Program (Map)
- Resources from the National Museum Australia on the Freedom Ride
- Learning Module: Freedom Ride, National Museum Australia (Teaching Resource)
- Aboriginal Australians
- Indigenous peoples_First Nations
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice